Monday, April 6, 2009

YOTA Books #6 - #12

Brief drive-bys because I know I won't have time to write a lot on all of these.


Kyle Baker is a - well, what's the term these days? Comic book artist? (Not really, for as he points out in his preface, comic book companies have oft had little use for him, despite his genius work on series such as DC's reboot of THE SHADOW.) Illustrator? (But he does so much more than illustrate ...) Visual storyteller? (Ack.) Graphic noveliste? (Double ack.) Anyway, UNDERCOVER GENIE is not so much a graphic novel as a collection of loose ends, part sketch book, part compendium of 1-4 page short pieces ranging from the absurdly deadpan to the scathingly incisive. Favorite gag, maybe: the guy who finds a genie who will grant him any wish, and the guy, thinking he's being clever and avoiding all the usual traps, wishes that everyone would love each other ... upon which he goes to buy his newspaper, only to be confronted with a query of where exactly he was yesterday.

#7: Richard Russo, BRIDGE OF SIGHS

The line of gray along the horizon is brighter now, and with the coming light I feel a certainty: that there is, despite our wild imaginings, only one life. The ghostly others, no matter how real they seem, no matter how badly we need them, are phantoms. The one life we're left with is sufficient to fill and refill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up.

Blame love.

I'm a reasonably big Russo fan, and any book that has passages like that will keep me turning the pages. But there's a part of me that thinks that this book's desperate attempts to touch on every major issue of the late 20th century, one major and complex one via a deliberate act of obfuscating facts for the reader, is just too unwieldy in the end to really flow. This is a sideways way of saying that you should read EMPIRE FALLS first, basically. But I can't help but be enthralled by the stray sentences that unspool in my head, like this one:

I told him the truth, that I loved him and didn't regret anything about our lives together. But do we ever tell 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but, so help me God', as my father used to say, to those we love? Or even to ourselves? Don't even the best and most fortunate of lives hint at other possibilities, at a different kind of sweetness and, yes, bitterness too? Isn't this why we can't help feeling cheated, even when we know we haven't been?

So: probably least awesome book of the year that I've blogged about thus far (there's one I'm omitting; I despised it so much I don't even want to give it bad publicity), but I'm glad I read it. If anyone in Auckland wants my copy, let me know.

#8: Hunter S. Thompson, KINGDOM OF FEAR

I've already sung the praises of HST in this blog, but it's worth emphasizing just how freaking smart he is, behind all the bluster and drugs and animal hearts left on Jack Nicholson's door step at midnight (just one of many too insane not to be true stories left in here). It's not just intelligence, though: Thompson loves deeply, and only some deeply passionate could get as angry, sad, and committed as he does. This book bills itself as an autobiography; it's more a series of postcards from various points in his life, but that makes it no less worth your while.

#9: Redmond O'Hanlon, CONGO EXPEDITION

A complete blind buy at the Brisbane airport; despite being an esteemed Penguin Classic (orange cover and all), never heard of O'Hanlon before. If you haven't: basically, he's a British scientist who goes on 19th century-style expeditions to various obscure places, despite being not particularly fit or suited for it. The journey in and of itself is remarkable, both for its natural beauty and structural chaos. From medical ailments to impenetrable government bureaucracies to a seemingly endless parade of villages where one or more residents want one or more of O'Hanlon's travelling party dead, the narrative never wants for interest, even when O'Hanlon segues from a night boat escape to the color of the wings of the bird soaring over the river at dawn. What's interesting about his writing style is that he is, relentlessly, present tense. There is no back story other than that revealed in discussions as it goes on; events are only clarified in discussions with other characters several pages down the road; we begin in medias res and basically end there, too. The result is very experiential and engrossing; my only quibble is that, despite his seemingly microscopic attention to detail (he keeps meticulous accounts of his inventory, recalls several page discussions with chiefs and the like), he never discusses any of the mechanics of how he records all this detail (paper and pen? microcassette recorders? photographic memory), and as a result I have to slightly question how reliable it is as a whole. Nonetheless, it's a very awesome satisfying blind buy and I suspect I will be reading more O'Hanlon when I break through my backlog of other things.

#10: Robert Kurson, SHADOW DIVERS

Ransom brought this book with him; I'd have never picked it up on my own and absolutely loved it. It's a non-fiction account, written in third-person pulpy prose, about how a group of scuba divers uncovered a WWII U-Boat off the coast of New Jersey and began a multi-year, sometimes deadly quest to figure out what U-Boat it was and how it got there. As someone who was diving much easier, much safer wrecks, it was engrossing to see what the extreme end of a sport that I love and am just starting to grasp; but I suspect even non-divers would find this a great yarn, and for once I managed to overcome my somewhat blase attitude about WWII stories. Definitely recommended.

#11: John Hersey, HIROSHIMA

Another Ransom selection, and a WWII story of a very different stripe. This was originally released in 1946, and was one of the first English-language pieces of reporting on the events of Hiroshima from the perspective of the people on the ground; it combines eyewitness testimony from 6 survivors. Having been to Hiroshima myself and walked through the museum there, it wasn't as eye-opening as it might have been to someone less familiar, but even still there were new, horrifying images that will be burned into my brain til I die. (The one I can't let go of: a group of soldiers, desperate for water, all of whom had their eyeballs literally melted out of their skulls and faces so deformed that their lips couldn't open to accept a spout from a kettle; a priest gave them water by dripping it down a blade of grass.) This edition contains the follow-up stories of what happened in the subsequent 40 years. Strangely topical at a time where Obama is, finally, calling for the end of nuclear weapons.

#12: Haruki Murakami, KAFKA ON THE SHORE

The third Murakami book I've read (not counting some stories I read in AFTER THE QUAKE; the other two are NORWEGIAN WOOD and THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE) and possibly my least favorite; undoubtedly an intricate masterwork, bravely throwing together everything from 17th century Japanese stories about living spirits and Sophocles to Beethoven and Colonel Sanders, and it's pretty compulsively readable, but I didn't get a strong emotional throughline or sense of the overall goal. Nonetheless, so much cleverness abounds here that I don't think Murakami fans would be disappointed as such, and a few passages (such as the feminist critique of the library) really entertain.

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